In an interview Thursday, Donald Trump was asked what surprised him most about the American press. "Well, I think the dishonesty of the media," the Republican presidential hopeful responded, with little hesitation. "The media has been unbelievably dishonest."
That Trump has an unfavorable view of American journalism will surprise few — for months, his campaign kept a "blacklist" of news organizations, including The Washington Post, and he has frequently complained publicly about a perceived bias against him.
But his outlet for venting this frustration may have been more surprising. Trump's comments came during an interview with Larry King that was aired on RT America — part of a state-owned Russian media organization that critics accuse of propagandistic aims and poor journalistic standards.
"Reagan never gave interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president," Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter, referring to the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. "Who advised Trump to appear on RT?"
The interview was featured prominently by RT and billed as an "exclusive." On Twitter, RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan shared a triumphant message about the interview: "We did it!"
An interview with Trump would certainly seem to show a new ambition on the part of the news organization. Originally known as Russia Today, the organization was founded in December 2005 as an English-language television network. At first it focused on reporting events in Russia and combating what it said was a bias in international coverage of Russia.
However, Russia Today soon ran into a problem with this approach: No one watched it.
Understanding that domestic Russian news was a hard sell for the audience, Simonyan eventually refocused the channel on providing dissenting views on international events. "RT provides an alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaints [an] international audience with a Russian viewpoint," the organization's website reads now, boasting of round-the-clock broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish and suggesting a potential audience of 700 million in more than 100 countries.
"Their mission now is not to report on Russia but to tell everyone how bad America is," said Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and translator who runs Noodle Remover, a blog dedicated to busting Russian media hoaxes. "There's a huge audience for that, not just internationally but in the United States as well."
To get a sense of this style of programming, consider this: Julian Assange was given his own show on RT for a few months in 2012. His first guest was Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
The American TV channel, which is available via satellite and on a limited number of cable systems around the country, says it has made inroads with viewers. In March, it claimed that it ranked among the five most-watched international TV news channels in the United States, with a weekly audience of more than 8 million. The figure is based on research RT commissioned; it could not be independently confirmed.
RT.com and its digital operations are arguably its most successful media venture. In July, the site reached 5 million unique visitors across the United States, according to the independent tracking firm ComScore, roughly the same number as the Denver Post's or the Arizona Republic’s Web operations.
RT America began airing Larry King’s interview show, “Politicking,” after CNN dropped him in 2010 (the show also airs on Ora TV, an Internet channel). Last July, it hired Ed Schultz after MSNBC canceled his low-rated program, “The Ed Show,” after six years. (In May, Schultz conducted an interview with Bernie Sanders, then campaigning to be the Democratic nominee.)
The network also airs a weekly debate and interview show hosted by Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and governor of Minnesota.
Their hiring was designed to boost RT America’s audience by bringing well-known, if past-their-prime, faces to the network. King has generally stuck with lighter, generally nonpolitical fare; his interview subjects have included Oprah Winfrey, Celine Dion and the Dalai Lama. He has said that RT exercises no editorial control over his guests or questions, though editor in chief Simonyan is said to have a phone with a secure line to the Kremlin on her desk.
During the 2012 elections, Simonyan joined Putin’s election staff while simultaneously running RT, a conflict of interest unknown in Western democracies.
The network has sometimes been criticized for its journalistic standards. In 2015, graduate students at the Columbia School of Journalism took part in a project that involved monitoring RT America's output. "RT ignores the inherent traits of journalism — checking sources, relaying facts, attempting honest reportage," Casey Michel, one student who worked on the project, later wrote for Politico.
It also has a deeply conspiratorial side, providing airtime to the notion that the 9/11 attacks were engineered by the government. On rare occasions, the mostly American staff of RT America has rebelled against the party line. Abby Martin, one of RT’s Washington hosts, condemned Russia’s “military aggression” in Crimea during a live broadcast in 2014. Her colleague Liz Wahl resigned on the air two days later, saying she couldn’t work for a network that “whitewashes” Putin’s policies.
Trump's interview with RT comes at a time of heightened concerns about Russia's alleged interference in the upcoming U.S. election. Russia is suspected of involvement in a hack of the Democratic National Committee email system and subsequent leak. The United States is investigating what it thinks could be a wider Russian plan to disrupt the November elections.
To complicate matters further, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have made a number of seemingly admiring comments about each other. During an NBC presidential forum Wednesday evening, Trump said the Russian president had been more of a leader than President Obama. In other comments, he has jokingly suggested that Russia should hack the email of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
How Trump actually ended up on RT wasn't immediately clear. A Trump spokesman told The Post that the interview had been a "favor" to King, a former CNN host, who has been a friend of Trump, and they did not know it would appear on RT America. "What Larry King does with the interview content is up to him; we have nothing to do with it," the spokesman said.
However, Trump previously appeared on "Politicking" in October 2013, less than a year after King joined the network. Meanwhile, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a prominent Trump adviser, accepted an invitation from RT to attend a dinner in Moscow last year, where he was seated next to Putin.
Arkady Ostrovsky, an editor at the Economist and the author of "The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's War," said the Trump campaign's explanation is plausible. "It's what they do," Ostrovsk said. "He walks into an interview with Larry King, and then they stick it on Russia Today."
Others are not so convinced. “I find it hard to believe he thought it was just a podcast,” said Schultz, the former MSNBC host who is now an evening anchor on RT America. “The only podcast Larry King does is about baseball. Everyone knows Larry King interviews people on TV and has been doing it for years. Donald Trump has known him for 30 years.”
But Schultz, in an interview, took umbrage at the notion that RT is a Kremlin-controlled news outlet.
“The Clinton camp is trying to do all it can to connect Donald Trump to Putin," Schultz said. "They’re trying to cast anyone on RT in a negative light. I think it’s deplorable. We’re journalists. We’re fair. We have correspondents all over the world. Yes, part of our funding comes from the government. But so does the BBC. So does the Canadian Broadcasting Network. The mainstream depiction of RT is a travesty. It’s dishonest.”
To an extent, even RT critic Kovalev agrees. He noted that in the 10 years RT has been operating, international perceptions of Russia have become decidedly more negative. "When it comes to winning hearts and minds, RT is a massive failure," Kovalev said.